BACKGROUND: Evidence on the effectiveness of printed educational messages in contributing to increasing evidence-based clinical practice is contradictory. Nonetheless, these messages flood physician offices, in an attempt to promote treatments that can reduce costs while improving patient outcomes. This study evaluated the ability of printed educational messages to promote the choice of thiazides as the first-line treatment for individuals newly diagnosed with hypertension, a practice supported by good evidence and included in guidelines, and one which could reduce costs to the health care system.
METHODS: The study uses a pragmatic, cluster randomized controlled trial (randomized by physician practice group).
SETTING: The setting involves all Ontario general/family practice physicians. Messages advising the use of thiazides as the first-line treatment of hypertension were mailed to each physician in conjunction with a widely read professional newsletter. Physicians were randomized to receive differing versions of printed educational messages: an "insert" (two-page evidence-based article) and/or one of two different versions of an "outsert" (short, directive message stapled to the outside of the newsletter). One outsert was developed without an explicit theory and one with messages developed targeting factors from the theory of planned behaviour or neither (newsletter only, with no mention of thiazides). The percentage of patients aged over 65 and newly diagnosed with hypertension who were prescribed a thiazide as the sole initial prescription medication. The effect of the intervention was estimated using a logistic regression model estimated using generalized estimating equation methods to account for the clustering of patients within physician practices.
RESULTS: Four thousand five hundred four physicians (with 23,508 patients) were randomized, providing 97 % power to detect a 5 % absolute increase in prescription of thiazides. No intervention effect was detected. Thiazides were prescribed to 27.6 % of the patients who saw control physicians, 27.4 % for the insert, 26.8 % for the outsert and 28.3 % of the patients who saw insert + outsert physicians, p = 0.54.
CONCLUSIONS: The study conclusively failed to demonstrate any impact of the printed educational messages on increasing prescribing of thiazide diuretics for first-line management of hypertension.
TRIAL REGISTRATION: ISRCTN72772651.